Monday, March 07, 2005

GUEST OPINION: The Parent Trap

From the Illinois Leader

GUEST OPINION: The Parent Trap

- Michael Burns

OPINION - As community and faith-based initiatives introduced by President Bush attempt to provide a solution to saving marriage, heated debates have ensued in recent years on the topic of how to strengthen the position of parents and children. One of the most critical of issues concerns how to effectively deal with divorce and child custody situations.

There are often a handful of reasons for why parents split-up, but few equitable remedies under a state-sponsored legal system which profits from divorce.

What makes us different?

One noticeable disparity is the latitude that parents have to engage in frivolous and prolonged litigation in order to keep the other from being actively involved, even if that parent is fit to engage in the care, nurturing, and development of their children.

Family court judges often dictate that if one parent doesn't agree to joint care, the other parent can't have it. Once that parent becomes a "visitor," substantial inequities evolve between the standard of living that child support and visitation are suppose to address for both the original and second family of the non-custodial parent.

On one side, our policies dictate that parents must support their children in order to maintain a standard of living, rather than to prevent harm, which was the original intent of supports for recouping funds for parents receiving welfare payments.

When it comes to visitation, many family court judges refuse to allow a parent to spend substantial time with their kids if there is parental conflict. There is also a financial disincentive if the non-custodial parent seeks to modify support due to the additional time they spend with the kids, as the state would lose federal child support incentive grant monies (.60 per dollar collected) should a parent have more than 90 overnights per year.

As parents sometimes behave as children in divorce and child custody proceedings, one could liken the scenario to that of children fighting over a prized toy or possession. If they can't get along, the deciding factor shall be for only one to prevail, rather than dividing the time and responsibility equally to enhance cooperation and involvement.

The mere absurdity of these policies should be clear to anyone involved in the formation and modification of these laws: Illinois can do better for its parents and children, and we ought to confront it head-on.

Family law professionals may be quick to disagree in support of their own proposals, which seeks to eliminate the notion of maximizing the involvement of fit parents, (see Illinois HB 1286) and thus would compel more legal battles derived from familial conflict.

Other groups who profit from broken homes are also in disagreement with changing the current system in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Sadly, the quality of life in urban communities in particular will continue to erode as lawyer-dominated legislative committees put-off these important issues for other causes while their brethren in family court continue to profit from the misery of others.

Some lawmakers candidly tell parents that they want to help fix the problem--but cannot offer a workable solution or proper sense of accountability in the survival of the original, intact family.
This goes double for the lack of attention to the torturous and gut-wrenching treatment that fit parents are forced to endure and the burden created on the community at-large when one parent works to thwart the relationship against the other, and when predictably that parent leaves the scene completely.

Noteworthy in 2005, Illinois lawmakers have sponsored a bill which aims to provide families with a tangible solution that shows promising results. Illinois House Bill 1431 would establish a presumption favoring shared legal and physical custody for divorcing or unmarried parents, or following parental separation in cases where a family court determines that both parents are fit to care for their children, thus creating an incentive for teamwork in our family courts, regardless of inter-marital strife.

Often referred to as "shared parenting," it refines a post-divorce parenting arrangement that attempts to approximate the parent-child relationships in the original two-parent home.
With shared parenting, both Mom and Dad have equal rights and responsibilities for their children's welfare and upbringing--but also have an active role to play in the daily routines of their children's care and development, and in which each other remain salient attachment figures in their children's lives.

As the living arrangement that most closely resembles the pre-divorce family in cases where both parents had an active parenting role before divorce, shared parenting encompasses both shared physical caretaking (the actual day-to-day care of children) and equal authority regarding children's education, medical care, and religious upbringing.

A novel concept? In Illinois, yes. In others, no.

After decades of practice by forward thinking parents across the country, shared parenting would not be an experiment. Several states that provide this presumption have enjoyed increased numbers of family court actions settled by stipulation, higher rates of child support compliance, and fewer returns to court.

Essentially, shared parenting picks-up where joint legal custody and single parent child-rearing fall short: to inspire better cooperation rather than conflict in contested divorce and custody matters.

What's good about shared parenting?

Parents know well in advance that there's no room for drawn-out battles, creating an incentive to work things out. The non-custodial parent, usually the father, will be able to spend more time with the kids, giving Mom a much needed break for work, school, socializing, or self-care. It provides for less family conflict, more contributions to child support and college tuition. And less legal hassles and return visits to court.

What's bad about shared parenting?

Lawyers will starve. Not bad, considering how bad they've done to families and communities over the past 30 years since the introduction of no-fault divorce and Soviet-styled child support for non-welfare situations.

Despite 15 years of research illustrating better outcomes for children with shared parenting, joint legal and physical custody is ordered in less than 10% of all cases on average.

As a collective community, it is clear to those concerned that we will be unable to compensate for the growing number of broken, single parent homes unless substantial changes are implemented within our family courts.

This fact is of no mystery to the millions of distraught parents who must endure such a costly and unnecessary trap, while eventually losing touch with their kids and watching them grow-up from a distance, wondering what happened to their sense of relationship as they are turned into "visitors," in the lives of their own children, rather than to enjoy the full benefits of being a parent.

At last count, there are more than 12 states considering shared parenting legislation.

What will be the ultimate remedy short of banning divorce all-together? An incentive to end the parent trap of our family courts should be our first priority.

Michael Burns is the Founder and Executive Director of Dialogue on Sustainable Community, a public interest Think-tank located in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at info@sustainable-community.org

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